Preserving Buddhist Murals

It's been nearly a decade since visitors could see the Penn Museum's Buddhist Murals. Conservators are working to bring them back into view.


April 30, 2024

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C688 Assembly of Bhaisajyaguru (left) and C492 Assembly of Tejaprabha (right)

For 100 years, two exquisite large-scale Buddhist murals were on display in the Penn Museum’s Asia Galleries, exposed to sunlight, humidity, dust, and even cigarette smoke (way back in the days when smoking was allowed in the building!). 

Today, these murals are undergoing a comprehensive treatment at the Museum’s Conservation Lab Annex before they can be placed back on view. In order to properly conserve and display these murals, it is important to understand their long and complex history. Throughout their lifetime they have traveled across the globe, been exposed to a variety of environments, and undergone intensive restoration work.

Timeline of the murals 

ca. 14th Century: Murals are painted on the gable walls of a worship hall in a monastery, likely in Shanxi Province, China.

Early 1920s: Murals are removed from the monastery and taken to the Chinese art dealer C.T. Loo’s atelier in Paris where they are joined into larger panels.

1926–1928: Murals are purchased by the Penn Museum and installed in the rotunda. Mary Louise Baker, who worked at Penn Museum as an artist and restorer from 1908 until 1936, coats them with shellac.

2014: Detailed condition maps are created by Penn Museum conservation technicians using high-resolution photographs and Adobe Photoshop.

2016: Murals are stabilized and deinstalled prior to construction of a nearby building to protect from vibrational damage.

2018: Pilot project to investigate the poured plaster backing system is completed.

2023: Pilot project to investigate the paper backing system begins.

The timeline begins around the 14th or 15th century when these murals were created. They were likely made in Shanxi province, China, and once adorned the walls of a Buddhist monastery. You can read more about their construction and history in previous Penn Museum blog posts.

The murals remained in their original location for hundreds of years, until they were removed from the monastery wall in small sections and purchased by C.T. Loo, one of the most prominent and controversial dealers of Chinese art, in the early 1920s. Loo and his team of restorers joined the small sections together into larger, salable units that would provide greater ease of mobility and aesthetic value. The mural depicting Tejaprabha consists of 28 of these individual panels, and the mural with Bhaisajyaguru consists of 23.

The Penn Museum purchased the murals from Loo through a series of acquisitions between 1926–1928 and installed them in the Museum’s Asia Galleries soon after. They remained on display for nearly 100 years, until they were deinstalled in 2016 to protect them from vibrational damage from construction on a neighboring building on campus.

Assessment and treatment

When C.T. Loo joined the smaller sections into panels, his team added a backing system to enhance structural stability and enable the panels to be displayed. There are three distinct methods that were used to create supportive backs for the panels: poured plaster, hand-troweled plaster, and a paper backing. The current conservation project is focused on understanding the paper backing system, which is found on 13 of the panels. The goal is to identify potential condition issues and to determine if the backing system is safe for continued use. 

Although the murals were separated into their individual panels during deinstallation, these sections are still quite large and heavy. To access and investigate the back of each panel, we need to use rigging equipment to flip the panels over. Before we can do that, however, we have to make sure the painted surface is in stable condition.

Two conservators clean a Buddhist mural panel. They are wearing blue latex gloves and carefully removing particles and dust from the panel. A third conservator is working in the background. Buddhist Murals, conservation, museum restoration.
Morgan Burgess (left) and the author Sarah Lavin cleaning the panel.
Close ups of a panel.
Panel C493.7 before surface cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right).

Having spent nearly 100 years in the rotunda, the murals were exposed to light, temperature and humidity fluctuations, dust, and cigarette smoke. As such, they have accumulated a significant amount of surface grime, the paint layer is cracked and flaking in some areas, and some of the mud plaster is dry and crumbly.

The first treatment step was to remove the surface dirt with careful swabbing, which revealed some of the original vibrancy of the pigments. Seeing more detail in the painted surface helped us learn more about the construction of the mural. Then we used sturgeon glue to re-adhere any flaking paint or loose mud plaster.

Flipping a panel

With the surface clean and stable, it was time to carefully flip the panel. Due to the size, weight, and fragility of these objects, turning them over is not as straightforward as you might think. First, we had to create a “sandwich” out of wooden boards and foam padding that could hold and protect the panel.

To actually rotate the panel, we used a gantry equipped with a rollbar and flat infinity straps. You may be surprised to see this kind of equipment in a conservation lab, but as conservators we have to use all kinds of equipment to safely and effectively move large objects, and we use these tools all the time out at the Conservation Lab Annex.

Two conservators carefully flip a Buddhist mural, sandwiched in between two wooden boards and foam to protect it during the process. They are in a large warehouse.
Sarah Lavin (left) and Morgan Burgess carefully flip the murals at the Conservation Lab Annex.
Top: The back of a mural panel, which shows wooden boards assembled to protect the mural. Left: Closeup photography revealing paper loss through exposed mud substrate and example of hide glue causing de-lamination of the paper and substrate. Right: Another photographic detail shot of loss revealing exposed iron rebar embedded into the original plaster substrate and covered with adhesive/resin.
Top: The back of a mural panel. Left: Paper loss revealing exposed mud substrate and example of hide glue causing de-lamination of the paper and substrate. Right: Loss revealing exposed iron rebar embedded into the original plaster substrate and covered with adhesive/resin.

Once we successfully inverted the panel, it was time for the moment of truth: to see what the backing actually looked like and find out what kind of condition it was in. From the back, we were able to learn more about how the panel was put together by C.T. Loo’s restorers. We could see the paper backing adhered directly to the mud plaster, metal support, and a wooden frame.

How were the metal rods applied to the panel? What kind of adhesive was used? Is this backing system safe for continued use or is it a detriment to the lasting condition of the panel? What type of mounting system will be required to reinstall it? These are all questions we will be working to answer as we continue this project. We’ll have more updates to share in a future blog post.

This project is made possible by the generous support of the Carpenter Foundation.

Sarah Lavin is a Conservation Technician at the Penn Museum.

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